It was unusually beautiful this morning, on what would have been Talya’s fourth birthday.
Sunny, but not too warm, the trees magnificent through the kitchen windows in various shades of green. Talya’s birthday is different than all the other days. She was born after a fitful labor in late June, not long past midnight’s threshold, as a summer electrical storm shook the sky around us.
Some mothers report great elation upon the birth of their babies, a serious high, a swell of pride, an overwhelming wonder at how they’d created something so perfect. Looking at her steely eyes, I wondered how the State of Israel would respond when they found out I’d given birth to the reincarnation of Golda Meir.
At least, that’s how it is in retrospect. It’s hard to remember exactly what I felt in the aftermath of my daughter’s birth. The thrill of new life soon gave way to the devastation of grief, as Talya died when she was little more than a month old. And today, on the morning she might have been four, I wondered where the time had gone, and what it might have meant.
And it was beautiful early summer morning, as early summer mornings in New England often are, only exceptionally so, owing to the relative cool and the sparkling, breezy sky. And we ventured first to the coop, where Samuel, now two, and I ran into their father, who looked at me and said, smiling, “Having a good day?”
And I said, “Do you know what day it is?” And he said “Monday” and I looked at him with eyes that attempted to be steely but might have evinced something resembling sorrow with rage and he said, “It’s the 23rd.” And I said, “Oh G-d, you don’t—it’s Talya’s birthday,” and held up four numerical fingers as if my hand might signal a reminder. “Thanks for telling me,” he said, through a mouthful of croissant, his eyes still fixed on the Times, and I said I was surprised he didn’t remember, and he said “Life goes on.” And I remembered that in the immediate aftermath of Talya’s death my good friend dubbed him Captain Sensitivity.
“Yeah,” I said, “Enjoy your day.”
“What?” he replied, “Life does go on.”
Yes, and no, and yes, of course, but no, and yes, and I don’t know, and obviously, I have not gone the way of the Italian war widow over here, then or now, but one expects some measure of recognition from the one person on the planet who ostensibly understands the loss of this particular child from a parent’s perspective.
I got bupkis.
So I paid for Samuel’s breakfast and we continued onto the Wildwood Cemetery, where Talya is buried.
We arrived at the cemetery, Samuel and I, and I wondered, as I always do, if I should have brought him along. I don’t want him to be neurotic, and I refuse to raise him as if he’s made of crystal, and I don’t want to hide the fact that he had this sister he never met, and I don’t want him to be consumed by that fact, either. And historically I might have said I didn’t want him to be afraid, but at this point, a little fear might be healthy for the child, based on everything I know to be true of his temperament and personality.
Still, I am of the mind that we owe it to ourselves and our children to ensure that everyone is as reasonably adjusted as possible. So I read the books and I talk to his pediatrician and I consider the best practices, but my strategy mostly involves what I hope is a developmentally sound combination of structure and freedom and boundaries and play, with a heaping dose of avocado thrown on top, and more books than strictly necessary. And we get by, the two of us. But maybe I’ve given him too much in the way of freedom, perhaps this child’s sense of his own agency is overweening, and I have made a mistake.
Because when we arrive at the cemetery, my child is shrieking.
“Keep your voice down, sweetie,” I gently reminded him, “The cemetery is a quiet place.”
“No,” he corrected me plainly, as I unbuckled him from his car seat, “I is outdoors, outdoors is loud, outdoors is VERY VERY LOUD.”
We park close to the tiny plot, which sits adjacent to another infant burial site, one Juliette Rose, who would have been fourteen next month, had she lived. The site is at the very fore of the cemetery, shielded by trees, not unlike those in my own backyard, at the crest of a hill, overlooking an elementary school. I often think of Juliette Rose, and the Wildwood schoolchildren, among many other things, when I am sitting on the mossy grass where Talya’s body rests. But before I can think of anything else, Samuel begins to sing.
“If you’re happy and you know it, go to the cemetery, if you’re happy and you know it, go Talya’s cemetery!”
I contemplate correcting him, for reasons of social grace, although we are the only people present, but by this point, we have more urgent problems, for he has quickly made his way to an octogenarian’s headstone, a testament to a life long and well lived.
Before I know what is happening, before I can contemplate my own grief, or what it means to be four, or what it means to not be four, before I can listen for the sounds of the children at the Wildwood Elementary, visible on their playground from the fore, on this, the last day of the school year: my child is straddling a neighboring headstone, like a bicycle or a horse, kicking at the script, slapping the side of the granite with one hand, shouting “Giddyap!“
“Get down,” I shout, “Get down immediately!”
“Shhhhhh,” Samuel corrects, “This is a quiet cemetery, indoor voices, please!”
I approach my child to forcibly remove him from the headstone, though he shrieks and arches his back, stiffening his body to something approximating immobility, contorting into what I might otherwise call dead weight, which in this context seems inappropriate, and I wonder what things would be like in another world, one in which Talya had lived.
I imagine, with all the certainty of one who has no way of actually knowing, that based on what little glimpses I internalized in the few short weeks she inhabited the earth, that she would be serious, and commanding, and slightly terrifying.
And it might not have been that way at all.
But I wonder, based on what I knew of her brief life, and what I know of Samuel in his, whether he might have existed in something resembling her shadow—as younger siblings are wont to do—except insofar as he pulled the sort of tricks he did today. “It’s his age,” people say, and yes, sure, it’s quintessential precipice-of-preschool-age behavior. “It’s developmental,” they tell me, and yes, I know. “He’ll change,” I am promised, and I hope so, and I hope not, and of course he will, but maybe he won’t, and we’ll see, I suppose.
“I want to push you over,” Samuel said, after I’ve wrangled him away from the nearby marker and back over to Talya’s burial site. I am cross-legged and he is facing me and he bears his weight against mine and I struggle but surely, he does topple me back.
“I knocked you over, Mama!” he said.
Quietly, I am crying.
“Do you need a tissue?” Samuel asked.
“I’m okay, sweetie,” I said, “But thank you.”
“Mama is sad at Talya?” he asked, “Or Mama is sad because I knocked you over?”
“Mama is sad that Talya is gone,” I explained, “But Mama is so happy that you are here.”
“Yeah,” he said.
“What about you, Samuel?”
“Oh, me?!” he said, flashing a giant grin. “Happy. Sam is so happy. Carry you, Mama.”
So I lie back on the grass, and place Samuel upon me, facing up, per his request. In the distance, out beyond the trees, children are making their way into Wildwood, to experience the last day of the school year. I can hear them, over the hill—the sweet sounds of play, the unmistakable buzz of children’s laughter, the din of another season coming to its inevitable end.
“Wow!” Samuel said, and I wondered if he notices the children, too, but instead I ask, “What do you see?”
“Mama,” he said, pointing overhead, “Those are some big trees!”
And I look, and they are.
So we lie there, Samuel, and I, and we look to the trees, which form a sort of chuppah over Talya’s burial site. And the light shines through them, as it did in the view from our windows when we first woke, not long after dawn on this early summer morning.